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Federal Court… Orders Iowa Christian Group Back On Campus

February 5, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By MIKE MANNO

The University of Iowa lost its bid to strip a student group, Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), of its status as a registered student organization when a federal judge granted the group’s request and ordered the university to restore the group’s status.
Like many victories conservative Christians win, it was not a complete victory and it continues to demonstrate how those opposing Christian values very often confuse belief with discrimination in order to further their ends, as well as how many university administrators apply dual standards to curtail Christian groups.
The controversy began in April of 2016 when a former member of BLinC complained to university officials that he was discriminated against and not allowed to run for vice president of the group because he was gay. The university then began an investigation that lead to revocation of BLinC’s status as a registered student group. The registered group status had allowed BLinC to receive school funding, inclusion in university publications, use of the school’s trademark, and use of campus facilities, among other things.
BLinC is a religious student group organized within the university’s Tippie College of Business. Its members meet weekly for Bible study and spiritual support, organize service projects each semester, and invite speakers who mentor students on how to merge faith and career.
Membership was open to all; however, its constitution did require that officers follow biblical values and that they must be competent for spiritual counseling and to lead student prayer services. They were required to adhere to its Doctrine of Personal Integrity which states:
“All Christians are under obligation to seek to follow the example of Christ in their own lives and in human society. In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including pornography. We believe God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and a wife in the lifelong covenant of marriage. Every other sexual relationship beyond this is outside of God’s design and not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity.”
Students who sought leadership positions met with a board that evaluated their competence to fulfill a group leader’s mission, and, if approved, their names would be submitted to the membership as an electoral candidate for the position sought.
The complainant had met with the board where he told the group’s president that he was gay and did not think he could uphold the Integrity Doctrine since he was contemplating entering into a homosexual relationship. On the basis of his statement, it was determined that he was in “fundamental disagreement” with the group’s faith and he was not permitted to run for vice president; but he was not expelled from the group. He then complained to the university that he was denied his opportunity to run for office only because he was homosexual.
Notice, and this is a point we need to make over and over: He claimed that he was being discriminated against due to his status as a homosexual man. BLinC did not make a determination on his status — it was made on his own statement that he was going to enter into what the Christian group considered to be an illicit sexual relationship which disqualified him from becoming a group leader.
This point, I think, is key to a lot of what religious organizations often face: the fact that they hold certain values on sexual ethics does not ipso facto mean they discriminate against those who hold different views. Here, in this case, the judge missed it, too; it was not the student’s status that caused his rejection — it was his planned action to violate the group’s norms.
The student asked that the university force BLinC to allow openly LGBT students to become group leaders, or to revoke its status as a registered student group. Ultimately, after a series of negotiations with university administrators, the group’s registered status was withdrawn. And, surprise, surprise, the complaining student then founded his own LGBT friendly group, Love Works, which advocates for LGBT justice. Naturally, it was subsequently recognized as an official student group.
In December, BLinC filed a 41-page, 20-count federal lawsuit claiming that the university discriminated against the group by violating its First Amendment rights of free speech and religion, and in doing so it also violated provisions of the Iowa constitution. BLinC then asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the university to recognize the group in time for it to take part in spring semester activities.
In support of its application for injunctive relief, BLinC filed a 39-page memorandum arguing that the school’s action violated the group’s freedom of speech and religion and that the decertification was an arbitrary enforcement of the university’s Human Rights policy. That policy was described by the judge as, “[E]ssentially boilerplate language [which] repeated in similar terms in civil and human rights codes nationwide, including the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Iowa City Human Rights Code.”
Regarding membership in student organizations, the policy stated, “[T]hat all registered student organizations be able to exercise free choice of members on the basis of their merits as individuals without restriction in accordance with the University Policy on Human Rights.”
BLinC then listed several examples of registered organizations that had approved limitations on membership or leadership in their constitutions, including: The University of Iowa Feminists Union which limits its members to students who shared its purposes, including support for abortion and access for contraception; and the Islamic organization of Imam Mahdi, which the court found most problematic for the university to defend, that limits leadership roles to Shia Muslims who “refrain from major sins.”
The university argued back in a 17-page resistance that the group’s rights were not infringed upon simply because the university chose not to fund it, that no irreparable harm is being done to the group, which is a requirement for a preliminary injunction, that the balance of the equities favored the university, and that Iowa had a “compelling interest” in prohibiting “discrimination on factors such as sexual orientation or other immutable traits.”
On January 23 U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose issued the injunction BLinC requested; however, there were some precautionary problems with her opinion.
First, she found that it was based “solely upon the university’s selective enforcement of an otherwise reasonable and viewpoint neutral nondiscrimination policy.” Here, of course, the judge missed what I pointed out above, that is, the confusion with a person’s status in relation to the actions he takes. Somehow the ruling implies that it was the complainant’s status as “gay” — not his stated intention to enter into an illicit sexual relationship — that was the crux of the matter.
In fact, the sexual relationship was the heart of the matter and it did not matter if it was a homosexual relationship or not since BLinC objected to all sexual relations outside of traditional marriage.
What caught the judge’s eye was the fact that the university policies were not applied uniformly and she cited the Imam Mahdi group, where members must be Shia Muslims, to make her point. “The university does not appear to have taken any action with respect to Imam Mahdi despite its clear violation of the University’s Human Rights policy.”
The university had argued that other organizations with defective human rights guidelines may have been allowed since its enforcement was only “complaint driven.” Since the university had to approve group constitutions in the first place, that argument did not hold much water for the judge.
In the end the injunction was granted for 90 days at which time either party may seek further actions and the university may respond by detailing any changes to the enforcement of its policies.
So who won this round? Well, it may be hard to say. The problem of status vs. action or belief was left on the table and, since the university’s policy was so arbitrarily and unequally enforced, the judge might have felt she had no other option. We hope that the university will decide that it’s in everybody’s best interest to just let this die. This, however, is unlikely to protect other Christian organizations on other campuses from the same treatment given to BLinC.

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